By Paolo von Schirach
March 22, 2012
WASHINGTON – It is World Water Day. Let’s think for a moment about lots of people and not enough water. The world population just passed the symbolic 7 billion mark. Many of these earth inhabitants are poor or very poor. And a large number, approximately 783 million, have no access to safe drinking water. For many, especially in Africa, walking for hours to get to the one place that has clean water, is a daily routine. Instead of engaging in other productive activities, very poor people have to go and get water. Children do not go to school because they have to go and fetch water.
Water is precious
Abundant, clean, and affordable water is at the foundation of all life, of all societies and all economic activities. More people on this planet unfortunately mean more stress on existing fresh water supplies. More humans and more economic activities, from industry to agriculture, mean fast depletion of existing aquifers, as more water is used. It also means more water contaminated by fertilizers, chemical byproducts and other waste, industrial and human. Every day millions of people drink contaminated water. They do not boil it in order to save precious fuel. Hence water born diseases and often death.
Water as a cause for conflict
But it gets worse. More demands on existing water supplies mean scarcity and therefore possible conflicts to control access to vital water supplies. The conflict over water issues is not explosive today, but a National Intelligence Estimate, (NIE), requested by Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, predicts that there may be serious tensions caused by water scarcity beginning in 2020, only ten years from now.
In Clinton’s words
Celebrating Water Day, Secretary Clinton summarized some of the key findings of the NIE that was produced last fall and whose unclassified version has just been made public:
…At this rate, nearly 700 million people will lack access to safe drinking water in 2015. And many countries still are not making enough progress reaching their most vulnerable populations, and those conditions will only deteriorate as populations grow and crowd into already overcrowded cities without adequate infrastructure…
…Today, the National Intelligence Council released the unclassified version of its report on Global Water Security. You can go online, read it for yourself, see how imperative clean water and access to water is to future peace, security, and prosperity, globally. I think it’s fair to say the intelligence community’s findings are sobering.
As the world’s population continues to grow, demand for water will go up, but our freshwater supplies will not keep pace. In some places, the water tables are already more depleted than we had thought. In northern India, for example, over-extraction of groundwater could impact food security and access to water for millions of people. Some countries will face severe shortages within decades or even sooner. And some hydrologists predict that many wells in Yemen will run dry in as little as 10 years.
The assessment also highlights the potential threat that water resources could be targeted by terrorists or manipulated as a political tool. These difficulties will all increase the risk of instability within and between states. Within states, they could cause some states to fail outright. And between and among states, you could see regional conflicts among states that share water basins be exacerbated and even lead to violence. So these threats are real and they do raise serious security concerns.
This assessment is a landmark document that puts water security in its rightful place as part of national security, and I’d like to thank everyone involved in helping to produce it. [bold added]. It is also a call for American leadership in this area. Our domestic experiences with water and our technical expertise are valued around the world. And as countries become more water stressed or nations face water-related crises, they are increasingly turning to the United States for assistance. We hear this all the time at embassies everywhere. Local leaders meet with our ambassadors and ask, “What did you do in the United States? How did you do it? Can you help us?”
Well, today, we are launching a new public-private partnership to help answer that call for leadership and to expand the impact of America’s work on water. The U.S. Water Partnership exemplifies the unity of effort and expertise we will need to address these challenges over the coming years, and it advances our work in critical ways. [bold added]….
Scary picture: water scarcity may yield wars, terrorism
This long excerpt gives you a rather worrisome picture. The world is running out of clean water, while we have made a mess of whatever is left by polluting it. Secretary Clinton did not mention a recent Chinese government report warning the country that China’s clean water supplies are rapidly diminishing, while much of the existing water is too polluted for human consumption. Remember that there are 1. 3 billion people in China. Imagine millions of them with no access, or restricted access to clean water. This could get quite explosive.
Down the line, it is very realistic to assume that thirsty people may actually fight and kill one another to secure water access, as it is possible to contemplate that terrorists may target water infrastructure to inflict maximum damage to vulnerable societies. This is no joke.
Interesting to note this new US Water Partnership the Secretary unveiled aimed at pooling resources and supplying American know how to needy societies. Let’s see how that will work out.
In all this there are at least two key issues: how to purify dirty water, and how to conserve water. These are huge challenges. Water purification is possible, but current technologies are expensive. Serious conservation will require imaginative new solutions.
I have discussed elsewhere “vertical urban farming”. If successful, this revolutionary way to grow food in cities could make a huge difference. Urban farming means locating right in the middle of cities stacked greenhouses (skyscrapers inhabited by broccoli and onions) in which a variety of agricultural products will be grown. Using hydroponic and now aeroponic systems it is possible to grow plants in an enclosed environment with little or no water.
Vertical urban farming would reduce stress on existing water supplies
I know this sounds like science fiction. But it is not. The first commercially driven urban farming enterprises are underway in different continents. If we could grow food in cities around the world relying on methods that use little or no water, the stress on this valuable and dwindling resource would be greatly reduced. (There would also be other big advantages: no more soil erosion, huge energy savings, reduced logistics, no warehousing, no waste from farm to market, and more.)
Cheaper purification will come
As for water purification, there are new technologies coming on line that would allow easier and cheaper treatment that will turn sewage or otherwise polluted water into potable water at a modest cost. This is not possible today; but it will be sooner than we think. That said, the water scarcity issue is urgent. This is a time to invest in solutions and deploy them fast.